The story of a young musician and the city that made him feel free.
In the summer of 2019, when Quincy Jones stepped out in front of thousands of people at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris, he greeted the audience like a long-lost family.
This is my home. And man, I can’t even begin to tell you how much it makes me feel to be back here in my absolute favorite city on this planet. I really mean that.
It had been sixty-six years since the polymath producer/ composer first set foot in the French capital, as a young and eager trumpet player in 1953.
Barely an adult and abroad for the first time, Quincy experienced a freedom and confidence that he had never before felt as an African American artist. Nearly seven decades later, his special relationship with the city remains.
Once he discovered music (Quincy famously wanted to be a gangster as a child), he mixed well from the very beginning — he was ‘adopted’ by Count Basie at the age of thirteen and began a life-long friendship with Ray Charles not long afterwards.
A few years later, Quincy embarked on a tour alongside Lionel Hampton and a bus-load of seasoned musicians. They hit the road, just as the dwindling Swing Era was evolving into a progressive big band scene, and Quincy looks back on the experience as having been “best education in the world.”
However, artists like Quincy have long enough memories to remind us just how entrenched racism was in the 1950s. Despite fond recollections, the young man certainly bore witness to America’s dark edge, as revealed in the 2018 Netflix documentary, Quincy:
At that time, all of the black bands had white drivers go into restaurants to get the food, to then bring it back to the band …
We hit some city in Texas, and in the middle there was a small church with a rope with a black dummy handing off from the steeple … this was everyday stuff then.
Arriving in Paris
In the years following WW2, many African American musicians based themselves in the French capital — Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Don Byas … They sought to capitalize on a vibrant scene (jazz was woven into Parisian nightlife by that point, having been introduced by American soldiers during WW1), and artists were inspired by the relative lack of segregation.
In Paris, Quincy had front-door entrance rights, a whole new city to explore, and he was treated as an artist first.
On Lionel Hampton’s orders, he launched himself into the local culture, learning a good deal of vocabulary and eating his way through the restaurants. Even today he is perfectly willing to engage French journalists for a few sentences in their own language, and the stories he tells them are tinged with the kind of misty-eyed nostalgia that follows from an enduring love.
It’s been 66 years of love with this city, its inhabitants, its dishes, its wines, its women … je t’aime mille fois.” — (2019).
A Quincy composition, Evening in Paris:
Once he returned home, Quincy’s name began carrying real weight on the New York jazz circuit. He was a talented instrumentalist, but musicians were taking notice of his extraordinary capacity for arranging, and by 1955 he had begun writing for the likes of Dinah Washington, Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley and more.
That same year he got a call from his “god” Dizzy Gillespie, who was on the brink of putting together a new touring big band. This is how he remembers the conversation:
Young catter, I want you to play trumpet, arrange, & be musical director of that band. Put it together for me.
Yet despite the successful tour that would follow, plaudits back home and significant traction among the top American jazz musicians, societal attitudes did not permit Quincy to venture beyond his formative genre. Writing for strings was the new goal, but as described by friend Bobby Tucker (pianist/ arranger/ Billie Holliday accompanist):
Back in the 1950s, the “easiest way to starve in America was to be a black arranger writing for strings … you could be Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven all rolled into one, but if you were black, your ass went to the blues and jazz department of every record company.
Strings were sophisticated, and therefore reserved for whites only.
Back to Paris
It was a job offer that led to Quincy’s move back to the French capital in 1957.
He was contacted by Nicole Barclay, the owner of Barclay Records, who requested that he join them as musical director. Reportedly, the first question Quincy asked was whether he’d be able to write for strings. Her reply, supposedly, was: “Dahling you can write for whatever you want in France.”
This second trip was only meant to last three months; instead he would remain in the country for five years and conduct over two-hundred sessions for strings. He rubbed shoulders with Henri Salvador, Charles Aznavour, Michel Legrand, Stéphane Grappelli and even Picasso.
Under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger, mentor to Stravinsky and first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, Quincy continued to break through the genre barriers that had restricted him in New York. He became a classically trained jazz composer, and everything seemed possible:
The yoke of black and white was off my shoulders … I was able to envision my past, present and future as an artist and a black man … I saw a wider view of the human condition that extended to both life and art …
Quincy’s relationship to Paris remains stronger than ever in the 21st Century. He sees the city as a symbol of his youth, and as a proponent of creative freedom.
His two recent performances, one in 2000 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, and one in 2019 at the AccorHotels Arena, have acted as musical celebrations, showcasing the quite staggering repertoire he has built in his post-France decades. At each one, he has made the point clear: none of it would have been possible without his Parisian years.
In 2017, Quincy launched Qwest TV, an online channel offering concerts, documentaries and archive gems:
I created Qwest TV to pay tribute to my mentors, from Dizzy Gillespie to Duke Ellington, but also for future generations. It is no coincidence that I officially launched it in France, a country that loves jazz so much. I was the witness.
Words by Rowan Standish Hayes
Quotes given directly, or taken from:
- Quincy (2018 Netflix documentary)
- Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones (Harlem Moon, 2002)